Friday, March 6, 2015

Carte de séjour

It’s early December and I’m sitting in a quiet Parisian restaurant with my old friend Kate.  She asks me something about my carte de séjour, France’s version of a Green Card.
     And when I look at it, I discover that I’ve been living in France illegally for.. 18 months!
     May 15, 2015 is when my passport expires, not my carte de séjour.
     The next morning I call the Préfecture de Police, the authority who handles resident permits, and confess my sins.  “Oh là là!” the woman says.  “Oh là là!” is not something you want to hear from the Préfecture de Police.
     She grants me “the first available appointment”, which is... three months later.  And tells me to go to a particular office at a particular time to get an extension.
     But when I do, and after waiting 2½ hours outside in the cold rain, I’m told “Your card expired too long ago.  We can’t give you an extension.  They shouldn’t have even sent you here.  We can’t do anything for you.”

Three months later, after the cold I caught in the rain has cleared up, I sign in for my appointment at the Préfecture de Police.  The lady at the front desk looks at my card and says “Oh là!”.  I tell her that’s one “là” short of what I had been told over the phone.
     Which is how I become known as Madame Oh-là-là from that point on.
     In spite of my very precise 2:30 pm appointment (and I arrived early), Antoine sees me one hour later.  He looks at the documents I was told in my formal letter to bring and says “Oh, you’re going to need a whole lot more documents than that!”  (Which is what the lady at the front desk had told me already.)
     Oh-là-là! I think.
     And I ask why weren’t those documents indicated on the paper sent out (by the same person who told me to go to that totally unnecessary office where I caught my cold).  Antoine says he doesn’t know.  But to come back as soon as I can get them together.

Which is the next morning, at the opening of the carte de séjour office.
     After waiting for an hour with the other victims, the Front Desk Lady calls for Madame Oh-là-là and says “Antoine. Counter 4".  I know where that is.  I was there only hours ago.
     Antoine congratulates me for my speed, then starts going through my papers (originals + 1 xerox).  And comes to a grinding halt when he sees that one of my bank accounts is sent to my U.S. address.  “Oh, that’s not good.” he says.  And I say “Oh-là-là!”  He commends me for keeping my sense of humor... and calls in his supervisor.
     Whose name is Béatrice.  Béatrice asks me a lot of auxiliary questions, the answers to which are to her liking.  She gives me a list of further documents to add so that the sin of having an address in the United States can be forgiven, and tells me to write a letter explaining all that I’ve just explained to her and Antoine.
     I tell them that I’ll be back in the afternoon, and hand Antoine a copy of my photo book on Paris, for being nice about this all (which was not the case in previous years!).  He says he can’t accept it.  Bribery, I guess.  He looks at his supervisor, who nods an “it’s OK”; it’s just a book, and I’m the author.  (I guess that could be part of the file instead of a bribe.)

For the second time, I make a round-trip back up that steep hill to Montmartre.  Instead of lunch, I write my mea culpa on plain paper instead of on the blackboard, find the other documents, plus some more that will show that I’ve been residing in Paris during those 18 (now 21) lost months.  In my letter, I even quote Josephine Baker, who sang “J’ai deux amours:  mon pays et Paris” (I have two loves:  my country and Paris), and generally throw in a lot of sturm und drang to tug at whatever heartstrings the Ultimate Supervisor and Signer of Green Cards may have.
     When I show up for the third time in 24 hours, Front Desk Lady greets Madame Oh-là-là with a smile.  She passes on the papers to Antoine, who tells me it doesn’t look good.  His supervisor Béatrice peeks her head around the corner and says that she’ll plead my case with her superior. They try to convince me to come back another day.  I tell them I have a book to read and don’t mind waiting the one or two hours more they estimate it will take.

Which is pretty much what it does take.  Postulant by postulant, people sit in the cubicles and then leave.  After a while, it’s just me and a South American lady, both waiting for the same thing:  the right to live in Paris as legal residents.  Should I lose that status, I’ll have to close all my bank accounts and open non-resident accounts, with all the nit-picking that requires.  I’ll have a one-year pass only.  And most importantly, I’ll lose my health coverage, which I paid into for decades... to the tune of 11% of all I ever earned.
     As the clock moves slowly, Senorita Supplicant is finally called into a cubicle and leaves.  There's only me now.
     The clock is poised at almost 5 pm.  Closing time.  Béatrice reappears.  Madame Oh-là-là is told to go back to cubicle 4 again, which has almost become a home-away-from-home.  Antoine tells me that I’ve been lucky. Béatrice has pled my case.  Her supervisor didn’t want to renew my card. He was adamant.  Said I was cheating and should be punished.  Béatrice told him he’d been renewing cards even for the homeless and here I was with two French children, three French bank accounts, an apartment that I owned, and having paid into The System for 30+ years.  Surely that was basis for residency.  And I guess he blinked.
     The last problem is that my fingerprints are to be taken digitally (a new touch since the last time ten years... I mean 11 ½ years ago.)  And the machine doesn’t want to work.  A second try.  And a third.  As all Antoine’s colleagues who haven’t already left look on - their coats, hats and gloves on because it’s 5 pm and the office is closed and they’re bureaucrats - Antoine tries another machine and... it works!
     So now a) we can all go home, b) none of them has to see me again for 10 years, and c) I have a legal document that states that I am indeed in France legally.  Champagne is in order.

     The sky is blue.  I go around the corner to Notre-Dame Cathedral because it feels like someone needs to be thanked, even though I’m not Catholic.  And then I go across the bridge and lose myself in an exhibit of the photographs of the Magnum News Agency.
     It’s been a long 24 hours.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Recipe of the Month: Fondue savoyarde

March is a time of melting, as my webmaster reminded me.  Melting snow mainly in the north of the United States, where I spend the non-France part of my life.  And after this past finger-numbing Michigan February, I certainly hope he’s right!  So it seemed logical that March would be the month of fondue.
     The word fondue comes from the French fondre, which means to melt.  And there will be a lot of melting before you can dig in.  Or rather dip in.
     In France, there is fondue bourguignonne (with meat) or fondue savoyarde (with cheese).  Savoie was an independent region annexed by France in 1860, which is very recently.  It’s in the Alps, near Switzerland - and thus the cheese, I guess.
      The Swiss used fondue as a way to make it through the winter on little money, stale bread and hardened cheese.  Now it’s become a pretext for a fun party, because anyone who loses his or her crust of bread in the cheese will have to a) buy the next bottle of wine, b) kiss his/her partner, c) perform a “trick” such as singing a song or telling a joke, and just generally getting teased a lot.
     There are few ingredients, so the choice of the wine and the cheese is of vital importance.  The wine must be a light and dry white, such as a Neuchâtel, Rhine, Riesling or Chablis.  The cheese is traditionally Emmentaler and/or Gruyère.  Fondue made with only Emmentaler is mildest, both together is a bit stronger, and well-aged Gruyère alone has the strongest flavor

  • 1 lb of “Swiss” cheese
  • 2 c white wine
  • 1 T cornstarch
  • 2 or 3 T kirsch, or other brandy/cognac
  • a dash of nutmeg
  • salt & pepper
  • clove of garlic
  • crusty bread

You can start getting ready in advance by cutting the cheese into very small pieces or shredding it.  It will melt more smoothly than if you grate it.
     Then cut up some small loaves of hard-crust “French”-style bread, leaving two sides of crust because if you lose your bread... well, see above. The drier the bread, the better, so if you have a lot of bread left over from a party, this is an excellent opportunity to use it up.  Remember, the Swiss dunked their bread because they weren’t wasteful; how do you think the country got so rich?
     Kirsch (cherry brandy) is the traditional Swiss choice of brandy for a fondue.  You can use cognac, light white rum or even hard cider.  Or maybe a Poire William pear brandy from Alsace?

- Begin by heating the white wine over direct low heat until air bubbles start to rise to the surface.  NEVER BOIL THE WINE!
- Right away add the cheese, a handful at a time and stir with a wooden spoon.  And stir.  And stir.  Until the cheese is melted.  Then add another handful.  And stir.
- When all the cheese is melted, add the cornstarch diluted in the brandy. Add salt and pepper to taste, and a dash of nutmeg (freshly grated, if possible).

- Cut a large clove of garlic in half and thoroughly rub the inside of a round earthenware pot for an added layer of flavor.  For cheese fondue, you use an earthenware pot, called caquelon (pronounced “kah - keh - lo”); the metal ones are for the hot oil of meat fondue.
- Pour the cheese fondue into the caquelon and light it up.  Use a sterno or other type of fuel heat; candles won’t keep the cheese warm enough.
- Unlike fondue bourguignonne, where you just put in your fork and leave it until the meat is done to your liking, with cheese fondue you have to go one at a time, so arm yourself with patience.  More time for conversation. Besides, if several people have a go at the same time, someone could knock someone else’s bread off, and that’s sabotage (again, see above).  So one at a time, please, and dunking in a figure 8 motion so that you get the most cheese possible AND stir the cheese at the same time.  (Remember, the Swiss are famous for precision:  watches and such.)
- At the end you’ll have a rich brown crust on the bottom of the caquelon. This is considered “the best part” and it can either be divided up or awarded to the one who didn’t lose their bread.

Should the cheese get too thick, stir in a little wine.  If it separates or gets lumpy, put it back on the burner, stir in ½ t of cornstarch blended in a bit of warm wine and stir it with a wire whisk.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Recipe of the Month: Crêpes

When I was a child, I heard of something called Crêpes Suzette.  I didn’t know what it was, other than a dessert (which made it of obvious interest), but I imagined something sweet somehow involved with a woman named Suzette, who was surely dark-haired and very beautiful because she was foreign.  Then one day I learned that crêpes were only thin pancakes - minus the maple syrup - and that Suzette was just the name of the very small girl present when they were served for the first time.  AND that the whole thing was, in fact, an accident in which the liqueur-soaked crêpe sauce accidentally caught fire in the kitchen.
     So much for the exotic Suzette and her crêpes!
     All over France you’ll find crêpes at sidewalk stands.  Their aroma and warmth are welcome in the cold grey drizzle of a Paris winter.  It was always a treat for my children on the way home from school.  Most French crêpes are served with just a smear of butter and a sprinkle of sugar, or with jam - usually strawberry or apricot - but sometimes with chocolate or hazelnut spread or crème de marron (a sweet chestnut spread).
     This recipe comes from my Paris neighbor Nicole, who says, “My recipe doesn’t come from Suzette, but from a certain Janine, a friend of my mother.  It makes 15 crêpes.  One big advantage:  it doesn’t have to be made ahead of time.  You can whip it up at the last minute.”
     However, you can make a crêpe batter up to two hours in advance and then cook the crêpes when your guests arrive.  Or you can cook a stack of them and keep them warm in the oven.  Dress them up with your favorite topping, flame them with a liqueur, or add dollops of whipped or ice cream and a shower of sliced almonds.  This recipe calls for rum but you can use anisette (anise flavoring), Cointreau or vanilla extract or any other liqueur or flavoring you like.  Plus citrus zest to give it some zing.
     This is the traditional way of making crêpes.  Julia Child just bungs everything in the mixer for 1 minute and strains any lumps out, but her batter has to be made 2 hours in advance (and left in the refrigerator).
     I’m posting this as February’s recipe because the 2nd is the Chandeleur (shahn-duh-luhr), the festival of the candles, which has been celebrated since the 7th century.  The tradition is to hold a gold louis d’or coin in one hand and flip the crêpe with the other.  (A silver dollar might work this side of the Atlantic.)  This will make you a) rich or b) grant the wish you made as you flipped your crêpe.

  • 1 cup flour
  • 3 T butter
  • 2 cups milk
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 T water
  • 1 T rum (or lemon or orange zest)
  • sugar to taste (remember, these are dessert crêpes)
  • pinch of salt

- Heat the milk to a boil.  Take the milk off of the burner and add the [melted] butter.  Leave it to cool.
- Put the flour in a large bowl.  Make a “well” in the center of the flour and break the eggs into the well, one by one.  Whisk well.
- Add a pinch of salt, then the water, then the flavoring (or zest).
Slowly stir in the cooled milk.  The batter should have no lumps, or else you need to strain them out.

Thanks, Nicole.  For those of you who have never made crêpes, here’s the drill:
- Stir the batter before making each crêpe.
- Pour a small “ladle-ful” of batter into a hot, well-greased crêpe or omelet pan, tilting the pan until just the bottom is thinly covered.  Remember:  these are not pancakes.  The crêpe should look almost like lace.
- When the edges start to brown, run a spatula knife under the crêpe, from the sides in, to make sure it doesn’t stick.
- Toss the crêpe to flip it and let it finish browning.

Don’t cook the crêpes too much; they should be golden, like the sun that they may once have represented at this half-way point of winter.

And don’t worry if your crêpe sticks to the ceiling or the cupboards when you flip it.  At least the first one.  In the old days, the French said that if it was still stuck there in the autumn, you’d have a good harvest.

There Goes the Neighborhood

A neighborhood is a living thing.  Not a shape-shifter, but more like a stage backdrop or a movie set that morphs with the seasons and the years until it’s not what it was but not yet what it will become.  Somehow it’s still the same... and yet...
     I’ve lived in Montmartre long enough to see it shed several of its skins. When I moved here in 1970, it was a mixed bag of blue collar workers who raised three kids in one- or occasionally two-bedroom apartments, and of artisans - plumbers, electricians, carpenters - and shopkeepers - the butcher, the baker, the grocer, the fish monger - plus just the right scattering of artists, actors and entertainers to keep things interesting. Everyone talked to everyone else as they went about their daily lives, which were somewhat overlapping and intertwined.
     After about fifteen years, there was a gradual spillover from the neighboring Arab part of the arrondissement that lies to the east, North Africans who were being squeezed out, it seemed, by sub-Saharan Africans moving in.  There was less talking and fraternizing then.  In the park across the street, I observed clans of Arab mothers in djellabas talking and laughing together loudly while similar clans of French mothers whispered amongst themselves from the other side of the sandbox.  Meanwhile, their children gleefully played together, not yet aware that kind of thing just wasn’t done.
     And then the Beautiful People discovered Montmartre.  It was shortly after the turn of the century, post-Y2K. They had bought up and gentrified the Marais and then the Bastille areas and were hungry for a new make-over project to spend Daddy’s money on. And my Butte, my lovely hill, was looking good.  They snapped up apartment after apartment - preferably in the western sector farther from the unsuitable smell of couscous and sound of Oum Kalthoum wafting from open windows.  They combined two apartments - vertically or horizontally, it didn’t matter - to have more space.  The result was that the population was cut drastically with the declining number of apartments and the declining number of children per family.  And I noticed a huge difference on week-ends.  Instead of children running around the streets and parks, the Beautiful People - the Bobos (bourgeois bohemians) - threw the kid(s) in the family car and drove to their country house for the week-end. Everything became remarkably different.

Place des Abbesses, with Kushi Teas (far rt) where the bookstore used to be
Stores changed, too.  If I walk down a street I can tell you what used to be in that clothes store or restaurant or bank or real estate agency - because that’s about all there is now, if you exclude a few specialty shops and a handful of hold-overs.

Charcuterie Durand, the former deli
   For instance, the south side of the Place des Abbesses used to have a Tunisian green grocer, which is now a bank.  A few doors down was a photographer, who closed over the summer of 2013.  The mainstay of the neighborhood, directly across from the Abbesses Métro stop and next to Eglise St. Jean, was a bookstore that also sold any newspaper or magazine you might want in a number of languages, as well as a vast range of office supplies, plus fax and photocopy services.  It was run by a crusty grump in a wheelchair (who was always nice to me, but then again, I smile a lot).  One day he had a fatal heart attack.  His children inherited the store - which he actually owned instead of just leasing.  The daughter lived in Canada and the son in northern France.  The son ended up running it for a year but it ate into his family time too much.  I suppose he could have arranged for the staff to run it - Lord knows they’d been around long enough - but I suspect Kushmi Teas, a high-end tea retailer, made him an offer he just couldn’t resist.  And so there was no longer a place to get your paper in the morning or your TV Guide at night.  Finally the city of Paris set up a newsstand on the Place des Abbesses because the demand was so vociferous... and there was money to be made from residents and tourists alike.
Jacky, the butcher - still there
   Another example is the Rue Tardieu, along the tourist route to the Sacré-Coeur.  If I start from one end, the bakery on the corner is now a pizza-and-crêpe café and the florist has become just one in a long line of tchotchke shops (which are rife in this part of Montmartre). The former wine shop across from them, which I knew under two successive owners, watching their children grow up, is now a pizza parlor.  Next to it, the old butcher shop is another pizza parlor. (If truth be told, the wine shop owner sold to a pizza guy just to get even with the pizza guy next door who had made his life miserable... or so he said.)  Next to that was a fur store (they made the coats themselves - maybe they were Armenian refugees), which became a toy store and is now a second tchotchke shop.  The former health food store now sells chocolates and macaroons and other sugary treats that are a far cry from health foods. Across from it was a little yarn shop that now sells nothing but... balls... all sizes and colors of balls:  ball-shaped lights, party decorations, foam balls you’re supposed to put in a fishbowl to look pretty... you get the picture.  (I have yet to see a customer in there but it’s still open after several years so maybe it launders drug money on the side.)  The little eatery that had formerly been a girdle maker is now a souvenir shop, as is the children’s clothing shop run by the sister of the yarn shop lady and her husband (are you still with me?)  Even the pharmacy has been transformed into a souvenir shop - a pharmacy closing is unheard of in France!  So now there are five souvenir shops in a row, a whole block of them, right down to the corner, nothing but that, and all selling the exact same kitschy things!
Pépone, the fish store - still there
     Across from the funiculaire there used to be two pastry shops.  The one that belonged to the Prandys is now an up-scale perfume shop, like the almost identical one up the street. Mme. Prandy was like a grandmother to my newly-born daughter and would sing her songs in her native Alsatian accent.  The other pastry shop was bought, via a straw man, by Häagen-Dazs for below its market value - something for which I’ll never forgive them.  Mr. Bertheau was kind-hearted and wanted to help the young man get started in the business, at the expense of his own retirement funds (he himself had worked since the age of 14) but the straw man never even opened up for business.  He just handed the keys over to Häagen-Dazs and pocketed the fee.  Both the Prandys and the Bertheaus had become personal friends of mine over the years, mainly because of my two children and their love for pains au chocolat and croissants, as well as my own.
Christophe, being replaced - no more bread
     On the side street, the fish monger is gone, as is the baker and the butcher, and the hairdresser/barber where old Mr. Mercier used to get a shave every morning on his walk around the city block, a way of keeping in shape for an old gentleman who won a Bronze Medal at the Olympics back in 1900. His last stop on his walk was the larger of the two pastry shops, where he once sang “Ainsi font font font les petites marionettes” for my infant daughter, complete with all the hand movements, much to the surprise of Mme. Prandy who had always found him a bit... brusque.
     The latest victim, which I discovered on my recent arrival, is the electrician.  My electrician.  A husband-and-wife team who, I’m told, have retired.  They did all the work on my apartment, all the repairs, all the improvements, and sold me bulbs for all the lights that were continually blowing, a fact that became a joke between us (“You again?!”).  Being close by, it was handy... and we became friendly.  I always stopped in when I walked by, said hello, pet their son’s dog, which they babysat during the day, and exchanged neighborhood news.
Manu, of Caves des Abbesses - in for the long haul
     There are a few businesses that have weathered the storm. My pet green grocer is still there, albeit with a lovely remodeling of his tiny shop (see blog, Sept 22, 2013).  The bookshop on Rue Tardieu is still a bookshop, but without my beloved Mlle. Pigeon, who has surely shuffled off her mortal coil by now.  There’s a tiny shop that sells magazines, newspapers and office supplies on a side street, but the owners are past their retirement age, so who knows how much longer it will last. Pépone is still there for your seafood-and-fish delight, with the same little Italian lady, now white-haired, behind the cash register, who always wishes me a buon giorno or buona sera.  I can still buy specialty foods from the Auvergne region in the little shop on Rue Lepic from the same sweet lady.  The deli is still a deli, under new management, but their rotisserie guy just doesn’t have Monsieur Durand’s knack with poultry; the fines herbes are missing.  So for roasted birds and all my meat needs, I go to Jacky down the street, who is still going strong, especially as he’s now the only butcher on the entire length of the Rue des Abbesses (see blog, Feb. 15, 2014).  The new baker, Gilles, across the square still bakes, but he makes only pastry, no bread, unlike Christophe (see blog, Sept. 14, 2012). Luckily, the Caves des Abbesses is doing fine, and with the owner’s son Manu at the helm it will surely live long and prosper (see blog, Feb. 22 2013).
     So that’s my neighborhood.  It’s changing, but the memories - or as they say in French les souvenirs - are still there.

P.S.  One change that I do appreciate is Pedestrian Sunday.  All the streets of Montmartre (from the various boulevards that encircle it right up to the tippy-top) are closed to car traffic (except the trusty little Monmartrobus) every Sunday from 11 am to 6 pm in the winter and 7 pm in the summer.  If you live in that perimeter and want to drive or take a cab, you have to prove it to the cop by showing a special pass or something official with your address on it.  Otherwise, it’s only people strolling, biking, skating or skate-boarding.  Smiling and laughing.  And the air is so much cleaner!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Gratin d'endive

Here in Paris it’s usually not as cold as in many parts of the U.S.  This has always amazed me, because on the map Paris is at the same latitude as Labrador, Canada. And yet the temperature rarely drops below freezing for long and snow is rare, thanks to the Gulf Stream which crosses the Atlantic and flows into the English Channel. That makes the climate milder.  On my first trip across the Channel to England, I was amazed to see the grass was still green at Christmas!
       Nevertheless, it rains a lot and the sun hides most of the winter.  That can chill you to the bone.  So winter often means “comfort food”, at least in the north of France.
       And yet... with all the excesses of the holiday season, and anxious to lose those added pounds you picked up (more the ladies than the gentlemen, but still...), I’ve chosen a winter dish that is low in calories as well as being inexpensive.  What more could you ask for, post-Santa?

P.S.  On a culinary note, although the word "endive" exists in both French and English, the French endive used in this recipe is generally called Belgian endive in English.  (Have I lost you yet?)  It's a member of the chicory family.  In fact, in the U.K. it is commonly called chicory when you find it on the markets.  The Dutch appropriately call it witloof  (or witlof), which means white leaf, perhaps as they don't want to be caught up in the attribution of a nationality to it.  After all, French fries are actually Belgian, so...

  • 8 endives
  • 1/4 of a stick of butter
  • 3 T of flour
  • ½ t salt
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1 to 1 1/4 c milk
  • 1/4 c grated parmesan
  • 6 to 8 thin slices of prosciutto or other dry-cured ham
  • 2 T of shavings of Emmenthal or Comté cheese 
  • 1½ t freshly ground pepper

- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
 - Wash the endives.  The white base of the endive is what makes it bitter, so you want to cut off just that part.  Take too much off and the endive will fall apart.
 - Melt the butter over low heat so that it doesn’t color.  As soon as it starts to bubble, take the pan off the burner and whisk in the flour, salt, nutmeg and Cayenne pepper.  Stir until it thickens.
 - Put the saucepan back on the burner and slowly pour in the milk, whisking constantly.  (Whole milk preferably, or else 2%, but NOT skimmed, as it could make the taste too “thin”.)  Turn the burner way down and continue to stir until there are no lumps.  Let simmer for 15 minutes, stirring regularly.  It’s done when it’s thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
 - Add in the parmesan and continue to simmer for 2 or 3 minutes until the cheese melts into the mixture.  Give it one last stir to make sure the cheese is evenly distributed, then take it off the burner.
 - Butter the bottom and sides of an attractive deep baking dish big enough to hold all eight endives in one layer.  (An attractive one so it can go directly onto the table.)  Arrange the endives in the dish and drape the ham over them.  (Another way is to wrap each endive in a slice of ham, provided the slices are large enough or the endives skinny enough.)  Pour the sauce over the top and add a few little dabs of butter on top.  Then sprinkle the cheese shavings evenly over the whole thing.
 - Put the dish into the oven for 25-30 minutes until the top becomes lightly browned.  Check that the endives are tender by sticking them with a knife.
 - Grind some fresh pepper over the top and serve in its dish while it’s piping hot.

If you want to enjoy a glass of wine with this, try a crisp white wine, such as a côtes du jura or a riesling.

Obviously this dish will be much more delicious if you work from scratch, grating the nutmeg and parmesan yourself and using the more expensive types of ham.  But you can also make it with packaged sliced cooked ham and pre-grated Parmesan if you’re strapped for time and short on cash. It’s still a very tasty all-in-one meal that children just may like if you tell them it’s basically cheese and ham.  With the endive being white, they may not even notice it's a vegetable.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Out & About - Events - The Bar at Buena Vista

It’s October 1962.  John Fitzgerald Kennedy is President and I’m a junior in high school.  The Cuban missile crisis is rampant and we are all glued to our TV sets until the moment when the Russian cruiser with the nuclear missiles destined for Cuba does a U-turn and heads home.  The Brink of Destruction has been avoided.
     Now it’s December 2014.  Barack Hussein Obama is President and I’m an aging expatriate in Paris, where I’ve, by now, spent half my life.  And the Palais des Congrès is featuring The Bar at Buena Vista, starring some of the survivors of Cuban music shipwrecked by Castro’s Revolution in 1959.
     These are not the musicians from the Buena Vista Social Club album and film, but Toby Gough, the Scotsman who leads this troupe and acts as narrator, has banded together 17 of their talented compatriots to carry proudly the flag of Cuban music.  As Toby explains, it’s all built around the Cuban barman from the actual BVSC who introduced him to these legends.
     First out is The Black Prince, Capullo, aged 77.  Then, resplendent in red, comes Luis Chacon Mendive, aka Aspirina because his voice cures all ills, even at age 88.  After that a piano medley by maestro Guillermo Rubalcaba Gonzales, 84.  He starts with Guantanamera, followed by La Vie en Rose - it’s a French crowd after all - then on to El Cumanchero with a burning bongo solo, and finishing with Hernando’s Hideaway.  A little something for everyone.
Ignacio Mazacote Carrillo
     There’s also the dancer Eric Turro Martinez, called the Cyclone because of his ability to spin like a top all around the stage and around his partners, and who somehow manages to dance with three women at once.   Ignacio Mazacote Carrillo continues to sing with a strong voice at 82, his hips still swaying in spite of a cane that he tosses away in his last number.  Oldest at 92, but still with an unwavering voice, is Reynaldo Creagh.  And last, but not least, honneur aux dames:  Cuban diva Siomara Avilla Valdes, whose age is somewhere in the 70s.  In the middle of her song she dances with a young man from the front row who holds his own and they end up with some Dirty Dancing, Cuba-style.
     Following on rumba, mambo, cha-cha and son comes a tribute to Afro-jazz - and especially to Chano and Dizzy - as the amazing Elpidio Chapotin Delgado on trumpet breaks into a hot Cuban version of My Funny Valentine that would make Gillespie himself nod and smile.
     After an hour and a half followed by almost another full hour after the intermission, the audience is on their feet and dancing, me included. Ending with the classic Chan-Chan as an encore - and before their second show in only a few hours -  these octagenarians and nonagerians could teach the youngsters a thing or two.   It’s sad that they had to spend decades shining shoes, washing dishes, rolling cigars or working at the dry cleaners.  But it’s wonderful that their voices are still strong and they’re spending the last years of their lives traveling first class and bowing to a standing ovation.

If you want more information on the show, or to see a video-amalgam of the acts, click on

Monday, December 1, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Mousse au chocolat

Joyeux Noël!
      Christmas in France is a family affair, and the big meal is served Christmas Eve, after Midnight Mass.  Or it used to be.  Nowadays it’s often served, as in America, on Christmas Day after the presents are opened.  The traditional dessert is a bûche, for which there are many different recipes, all of which are complicated to make.
     Christmas also means marrons glacés (candied chestnuts), each one individually wrapped in shiny gold foil.  But above all, it means chocolates.
     Some of my favorite memories are of hours spent watching pastry chef Bernard Bertheau make them himself in the basement of his shop in Montmartre. It was cramped by modern standards, and a lot of the equipment dated back to his start in the trade sometime shortly after World War II.  But it was brightly lit and spotlessly clean... and toasty warm.  I would pick my way down the narrow, winding stairs and hear him moan “Oh non, l’Américaine!”... with a big smile on his face.  Monsieur Bertheau loved to tease and he adored anyone who shared his passion for pastry and chocolates.
     I never failed to be amazed by the speed and sureness of his movements, and by how he always knew when the melted chocolate was too cold to work.  He’d pop the large stainless steel bowl back in his huge pastry oven for just a few seconds, pull it out, stir vigorously, drop in almonds or candied orange peel, then take them out one at a time, stuck on his fork (making that trademark three lines on the chocolate coating) and leave them to cool on the marble work surface.  He was proud of his handiwork, and I think he enjoyed “catching” me pop one into my mouth.  I’ve never tasted chocolate so good!
     One day Monsieur Bertheau retired and sold the shop.  I inherited some of his vintage chocolate molds, but so far I haven’t screwed up my courage to try them.  His act is just too hard to follow.  I’ve visited him and his wife in their home in their native Loire region.  Since the shop closed seventeen years ago, he hasn’t made a pastry or a chocolate.  But then I guess he made enough of them in his fifty-year career to last a lifetime.
     Still, I wish he would.
     And invite me.

There are as many recipes for mousse au chocolat as there are cooks.  Light and fluffy with milk chocolate, heavy and creamy with dark chocolate... With or without liqueur. And everyone likes their own best.
   This is Monsieur Bertheau’s version, which is easy and fast to make.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

  • 200 g (7 oz) of baking chocolate, broken into pieces
  • 30 g (1/4 stick or 2 T) of butter, cut into small pieces
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1/4 c of liqueur such as cognac or Grand Marnier (optional)
  • 50 g (1 3/4 oz or 1/5 c) sugar

-  Select a 2-quart stainless steel bowl and a saucepan large enough so that the bowl fits snugly on top.  Pour boiling water into the saucepan and set the bowl on top of it.  Keep the water at a simmer.
- Add the chocolate and butter to the bowl.  Continue stirring until well blended, then remove the bowl from the pan.
- Add the sugar to the egg yolks and mix with a wooden spoon until they are frothy.
- Mix the egg yolk/sugar mixture (and optional liqueur) into the chocolate, and stir until thoroughly blended.
- Place the bowl briefly in the refrigerator until the mixture is slightly cooler than lukewarm.  If it becomes too chilled, it will harden, so don’t let it get too cold.
- Beat the egg whites until they are stiff.
- Fold the whites into the chocolate mixture until it’s all the same chocolate-ness in color.  Do not beat or stir them or the egg whites will “fall”.
- Spoon the mousse into 4 ramekins.  You can decorate it with a sprinkling of chocolate shavings, almond slices, cinnamon, mint sprig, or anything else your imagination whispers in your ear.
- Chill briefly until ready to serve.

P.S.  This is a good recipe for lactose intolerant people, as there is neither milk nor cream, only butter, which could, I suppose, be replaced by a non-dairy substitute, although I think Monsieur Bertheau would be chagrined.